Beekeeping Blog –

Bees not surviving into Spring

Colony Dying Out as it comes into Spring

One of my colonies came through the Winter with three seams of bees and very small patches of brood and after checking on it 3 weeks after the initial season inspection it has died out. There were plenty of stores so haven’t starved but obviously haven’t had the numbers needed to keep the brood temperature up. The dead bees are clustered on the frames which is always a sad sight.

So whilst February was very warm the weather in the second half of March turned cold with some days of sleet. No overnight frosts but certainly chilly. In hindsight I should have either moved the colony into a nuc or added a frame of brood from one of the stronger colonies.

It’s always a challenge at the start of the season as the other colonies are only just starting to build up and therefore it’s easier to put off a decision rather than taking decisive action.

Marking and Clipping Queens

There’s a lot of differing opinions about marking queens and especially clipping them.

When I first started I was like most novice beekeepers very nervous about this aspect of beekeeping. Also I didn’t see the need for clipping queens but over the years I’ve come to appreciate the benefits. Even if you don’t clip your queens I think it’s good practice to mark her. When you need to perform some form of manipulation on a hive, for example splitting a colony, it almost always involves isolating the queen so the quicker you can find her the better.

I used to use a “crown of thorns” cage to isolate the queen when I first started but never liked it and thought it a bit of a crude way of marking the queen. So I switched to using the standard technique of picking up the queen with my right hand and placing her on the top of the forefinger of my left hand and trapping her legs. Once secured I can then mark her and clip one of the wings. To make it easier you can either take your gloves off or pull them tight to make it less fiddly.

Couple of points to make on marking

  • Make sure the queen is fully settled in and as a rule of thumb I wait until at least there is capped brood from eggs she has laid
  • Perform the operation over the open hive just in case you drop her
  • Less is better than more with the marking pen, you can always remark her if it’s clear enough
  • Make sure you have the pen handy and with the cap off -a number of times I have not been ready and struggled to hold the queen and look for my pen at the same time
  • Wait 15-20seconds before releasing her back into the hive to give the marking fluid time to dry
  • Clippings – I know that a lot of beekeepers don’t believe in clipping and think of it as cruel to “damage” the queen. For me two things persuaded me to adopt it as a standard way of managing my queens.

    I normally try and inspect my colonies at the week-end but sometimes the weather or family circumstances prevent me carrying out a weekly inspection. As result I have lost a few swarms in earlier years. I’ve also seen evidence of Bees capping over a queen cell in less than a week, but this might be just me not paying enough attention when I last inspected them. So at least with a clipped queen it delays a swarm issuing for a week until one of the new virgin queens emerge.
    The second reason is that I have an out apiary site and even with weekly inspections and rather than have a swarm issue and cause bother for the landowner I would rather buy myself more time and stoma swarm from issuing. So far I’ve not had a problem with a colony rejecting a clipped queen.

    Cleaning Frames Using a Boiling Tank

    Grafting Technique – My Queen Rearing and What Works

    I don’t do a lot of grafting but I get quite good results by doing the following:

    • Use a brood frame that has been laid in a few times, i.e. not a new frame of drawn comb or one completely black. I found that new drawn comb is too soft and the Chinese grafting tool pierces the wax rather than curving around the larvae. When it’s too dark I can’t se the larvae at the bottom even with a torch.
    • I take the frame indoors to do the grafting. As my shed is next to the apiary it’s only a minutes walk so I don’t need to cover the frame or use a damp cloth. Working indoors means I can take my time and work at a nice height with the right lighting conditions. Just makes it easier and less fiddly, with no distractions.
    • I use a head magnifier with a built in light to select the smallest larvae I can. Ideally no bigger than an egg. To get it on the grafting tool I insert the tip of the grafting tool at the back of the C shaped larva. I don’t use the magnifier to help me with the actual graft as I find it gets in the way.
    • I transfer the larvae to the brown plastic cups, similar to those with the Jenter or Cupkit systems, and just ease the larvae off using the release button on the grafting tool. My grafting frame holds 10 cells, in 2 rows of 5, and I wait until I have filled all 10 cups before transferring them on to the frame. This way I find I can get into a rhythm and can do the grafts in a couple of minutes.
    • If I have any slight wobbles as I do a graft I reject it and start again and select a fresh larva.

    Working quickly and getting into a rhythm make the process less fraught. My last attempt resulted in 9 of the 10 cells being accepted. Typically, I only want 3 or 4 queen cells and so having double the number means I can select the best looking ones to be hatched out.


    I have started using the Cloake board system for raising the queen cells and will put an article up soon on how this works. But I have found it easier than the Wilson-Pagden method I was using before.

    Apideas – Tips to Improve Success Rates

    When I first started with queen rearing I had limited success with using apideas for raising new queens and by trial and error I have improved my mating rate using the following approach:

    • Stock the apidea 2 days before introducing a sealed queen cell. I am lucky to have 2 apiary sites so I use bees from one site and then place the stocked apideas in the other apiary. This seems to eliminate losing all the bees back to the parent colony.
    • Fill it with a cupful (around 300) bees. To try and ensure I get nurse bees rather than foragers I lightly shake 2 brood frames into a box and leave for 30 seconds to allow flying bees to “escape”. Obviously having made sure the queen is elsewhere in the colony!
    • I lightly spray the remaining bees with water to get them to clump together. Then turn the apidea upside down, remove the bottom slide and tip the clump of bees in. Close the apidea up and place it in a quiet spot in my shed.
    • At this stage I fill the feeder with 2:1 syrup as I want to encourage them to draw out the wax foundation strips – hence going after nurse bees that have active wax glands.
      Whilst the bees are in the shed I spray the front grille with water twice a a day.
    • After 2 days it’s time to introduce the sealed queen cell, usually 9-10 days after grafting. As I am grafting this is just a case of inserting the the cell holder and lodging it in place by closing the flap in the Perspex cover. I check the feeder to see if it needs topping up. I have drilled a 4 mm hole in the perspex cover to allow me to do this with a syringe rather than having to open up the apidea completely.
    • 24 hours after introducing the queen cell I place the apidea in it’s permanent spot in the apiary. I open up the entrance in the evening to let the bees start to get acclimatised to their new location.
    • Then I leave alone for 10 days before inspecting.

    Using bees from a secondary site and concentrating on filling with nurse bees are the main reasons for my success rate going from 25% to 80%.

    Oxalic Acid Vaporiser Treatment on September 20th

    After the high count in Aqua from the drone trap last week – 50:100 and the Defra advisory on incidences of high Varroa infestations I decided to use my new vaporiser and apply Oxalic Acid to the home apiary colonies. Will do the Mole Valley ones next week.

    Oxalic Acid Vaporiser - completed

    Bit of a faff removing the entrance blocks especially as it was the middle of the day and as the weather has continued to be warm the bees were very active. Didn’t see the vapour coming out of the top of the hives but certainly seems effective based on the drop counts. Very easy to use and found the on/off switch to be useful, also liked the fact the battery is relatively light weight so easy to move around the apiary.

    Put in Varroa slides before applying the treatment and the 24 hour drop counts were shocking:

    • Aqua – 132 – surprised at how high as this the colony that I have been very focused on drone trapping during the season
    • Blue – 212 mites, might be down to the poor start it got during the season
    • Cyan – 180 mites – very active so after the other results not too surprising
    • Denim – 37 mites, surprised how low it was compared to the others; hopefully the treatment was applied correctly This has been a very active colony throughout the season
    • Honeydew – over 300 mites. Very surprised as this was a new colony this year but I obviously haven’t been managing it for Varroa very effectively. I thought the it would be one of the lowest as it was set-up as a nuc and I didn’t use drone trapping.

    Second count 48 hours after treatment not much better (either the treatment is really effective or my colonies are in a very bad state!):

    • Aqua – 85 mites
    • Blue -180
    • Cyan – 60
    • Denim – 10
    • Honeydew – 260

    With such high counts I will treat again in 3 weeks. This is one of the advantages of using the Vaporiser is that the treatment can be repeated.

    Making an Oxalic Acid Vaporiser – Part 1

    Since reading about the effects of applying Oxalic Acid in a sublimate form (vaporised) rather than the trickle method I have been using I decided to look at acquiring a vaopriser. I was horrified to see what they cost for a commercial one and so set about making my own.

    I couldn’t find a design that seemed to be tried and tested so experimented with various prototypes and have ended up with one that works for me – see under plans for the details of the build. This post is about my experiments and conclusions about what worked for me. I wanted to make it cheaply and if possible using tools that I have.

    My initial design criteria:

    1) Fit into a hive without removing entrance block

    2) Use 12v power supply

    3) Administer 2g dose within 3 minutes

    4) Use my pillar drill and router to machine the materials.

    Prototype 1:

    I worked out the volume that 2g of Oxalic acid would take up and produced a Sketchup design for one that could be  heated by a diesel glow plug. Using my router I made the recess that would hold the Oxalic crystals to the correct dimensions . Then tapped 2 holes to take the glow plug and handle. Finished version of the block shown as 1 in photo. Found it very difficult to rout out the recess with a router bit in my pillar drill. Definitely not recommended and forced me to look at alternatives for the other versions I made. The drawback with this design is that it was relatively quite a large block of aluminium (50mm x 50mm x 19mm) and weighed 120g and took ages to heat up – over 5 minutes to boil off some water, so no good.

    Prototype 2:

    For this design, 2 in photo, I decided to try and use a PTC element to heat a slimline block. The idea being that using the PTC element would mean that I could keep the height of the unit to 9mm and so fit into the hive without removing the hive entrance block. Overall size was 60mm x 60mm x9mm and weighed around 60g. Because the tolererances for the various holes needed to be much tighter than I could achieve with my basic tools, I got a friend to CNC the block for me. The PTC element was cheap about £5.00 and could reach a temperature of 170°C, more than hot enough to vaporise the Oxalic Acid (157°C).  The drawback was that the PTC element heats up quite slowly. It couldn’t boil off the water I used as a test in less than 8 minutes, so I didn’t even bother to test with Oxalic.

    Prototype 3:

    Design 3 in photo. I set out to minimise the size of the block and went back to using a glow plug as the heat source. My friend CNC’d 2 for me so I had a spare if I messed up drilling the hole for the glow plug (he drilled and tapped the hole for handle). Overall the block is 42mm x 36mm x 12mm and weighs 45g

    My first try was to use a 8mm aluminium tube for the handle as I wanted to pass the wires from the battery through the tube rather than have them taped to the side. This meant the wires had to be thin gauge to fit into the diameter of the tube. However on testing it showed the wires were not capable of carrying the current required to power the glow plug. Took about 3 minutes to boil the water off and the wires themselves were warm to the touch a sure sign they were not up to the job.

    So my final version was to use a 10mm tube which could take wires rated at 13 amps (glow plug seems to draw about 5 amps).  I finished off the build with a wooden handle into which I  fitted a rocker switch. The acid test (forgive the pun) was that it managed to vaporise the Oxlic Acid in 2mins 15 seconds.

    Oxalic Acid Vaporiser - completed

    So my conclusions for anyone considering making their own vaporiser. Keep the size of the block as small as possible. I could probably shave about 10g off my version if I pare down the size a bit more. Use a glow plug as the heat source as it heats up really quickly and is cheap, around £5 for a new one. Beware the glow plug thread is fine  pitch, most taps seem to be for standard pitch.


    Feeding Honey Back to The Bees

    I know it’s not recommended but I had a super of old  honey, most of it crystallised in the combs. Rather than just bin it I decided to feed it back to my bees. So I uncapped 4 frames and put them into a super and left it about 15m from the hives. The bees found it and took about 2 days to clear the frames out. They made a mess of the foundation and a lot of wax debris was deposited on the ground. The condition of the drawn combs was such that they couldn’t be re-used and I put them in the solar wax melter. The whole process seems to have made the bees in all the hives very aggressive. I guess what I had unwittingly caused was a form of robbing activity and the colonies were taking measures to protect their own stores.

    I was still left with another 5 frames, but didn’t want to repeat the process of leaving the frames in the open. I decided to uncap the frames and split these between two hives  and put them in a super above the crownboard. The bees cleared them in 2 days and when I removed the empty combs the bees were still very aggressive. But on the plus side they hadn’t destroyed the drawn combs and I will be able to re-use them.

    So at least I have learnt one lesson – put the combs back on to a strong colony above the crownboard for best results.

    Bait Hive – Success As Swarm Takes Up Residence

    I put a bait hive out for the first time last year but didn’t have any luck attracting a swarm, but then I didn’t have much luck with anything beekeeping related last year. The main reason for doing it was to hopefully stop swarms from my own colonies causing problems with the neighbours.

    About 4 weeks ago I decided to relocate it from it’s westerly facing position on a  flat roof to the top of my south facing porch – about 3m off the ground. The bait hive consists of a 14 x 12 brood box fitted with a solid floor and a restricted entrance of about 30mm in one corner, topped with a crownboard and roof. Inside the box were a couple of old frames and a dummy board – as it’s a 14 x 12 box I wanted to make the internal volume appear smaller. All the research I did indicated that bees seemed to prefer around 30-36 litres so using a dummy board meant I could adjust the internal space to the recommended volume.

    I smeared a couple of drops of lemongrass oil across the tops of the frames and put some on a wad of tissue inside a freezer bag that I placed in a corner on the floor.

    Got back after being away for the week-end to find that a swarm had occupied it. As I hadn’t inspected  my own bees I was a bit concerned that one of my colonies might have swarmed whilst I was away. However, after inspecting my colonies it looks like it’s a swarm of somebody else’s bees.

    From a cursory look I can see it’s a large swarm and has already started to fill the old combs and drawn a new comb down from the crown-board and the bees look to be good tempered. As it had been there for about 3 days I took it down and sited it in my apiary. I have added some additional frames of foundation and put in a frame feeder in case they are short of stores and to encourage them to draw out the new foundation. At the week-end I will do a proper inspection and look to put them in a normal brood box so I can re-use the bait hive.

    Really pleased so far with the results as it’s always nice to get something for nothing, hopefully they will turn out to be a productive colony and expands to be able to take them through the Winter as a full size colony.

    My advice for anybody contemplating setting up their own bait hive is go for it. Make sure that the location you choose is one that you can access easily as you will need to able to carry a box full of bees down from it. At first I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do this as I had originally set the hive up by carrying the individual components up a ladder one by one. It’s a different story trying to lug a full size box back down again.



    Observations of a Warm Spring

    After a number of seasons where the start of Spring has been either cold, wet or even both it makes a pleasant change to have a warm and settled period of weather to the start of a season. This year, 2014, looks to be about 4 weeks ahead of last year and about 2 weeks ahead of what could be considered an average Spring. The bees are certainly active when the mid-morning temperature gets above 12C and it has been getting to 17C on quite a few days. What has been interesting to observe is that my strongest colony, Aqua, has raced ahead of the others. It’s been expanding at the rate of one additional 14×12 frame of brood per week. So it has virtually doubled in size in the space of 6 weeks, which means I can add a second brood box and use it for queen rearing. The other colonies are expanding much more slowly, probably about 1/2 a brood frame a week.


    Also what has surprised me has been the emergence of drones very early in the season, at least this means that if the bees do start to show signs of producing new queens they can get mated.

    The other issue that appears to be one that will need to be tackled is varroa. As the Winter was very mild this means that the colonies were rearing brood over the whole of Winter giving the varroa ample opportunity to continue their breeding cycles in the larval cells.  I haven’t started to remove capped drone brood yet. I think that because it’s a bit early the bees have been drawing the comb out as worker cells rather than drone cells. I will put in the varroa slides to monitor the mite drop and see how bad the problem is likely to be.